The man who ordered my grandmother’s murder has never been tried for this crime. He also did not stand trial for any of the 137,000 other murders he ordered for five months in 1941.
I know who he was. His name was Karl Jäger and he commanded a Nazi firing squad in Lithuania, where my 44-year-old grandmother had been deported from her hometown in Germany. He is just one of hundreds of thousands of men and women who have never been brought to justice for their role in the Nazi Holocaust. It is estimated that up to a million people were directly or indirectly involved in Holocaust-related atrocities, but only a tiny fraction – perhaps no more than 1% – have been prosecuted.
Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in which 24 of the top Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was the first such trial in history, described at the time as “a shining light for justice”.
A dozen more trials followed – of bankers, lawyers, doctors and others – but according to Mary Fulbrook, professor of German history at University College London, once the Nuremberg process is over, West Germans prosecuted only 6,000 people for their part in Nazi crimes. , of which some 4,000 have been convicted.
Most of the perpetrators of the holocaust, like Jäger, a music-loving SS colonel who ordered the murder of my grandmother and so many others, have simply reintegrated into their communities. Jäger, for example, led a quiet and low-key life as a farmer in the German town of Waldkirch, not far from the borders with France and Switzerland, until he was finally arrested in 1959. He s ‘is hanged in his prison cell with an electric cable span before he can be brought to justice.
So why was Nuremberg, and the handful of other war crimes trials that followed, the exception rather than the rule?
First, because in 1945 a large part of Germany was nothing more than a smoldering ruin. Millions of people were homeless, so the focus was mainly on reconstruction. And who was available to take charge in the “new Germany” if not the same (supposedly denazified) officials who had served under the Nazis?
Second, because with the onset of the Cold War and fears of Soviet domination in Europe, the United States and Britain believed it was more important to deal with the Soviet threat than to hunt down thousands of Nazis. Justice should take a back seat.
None of this excuses why, even today, so few perpetrators of the most egregious crimes against humanity are prosecuted and convicted. It is true that Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić are both serving long prison terms for their role in the atrocities of the war in Bosnia. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is in jail after being convicted of what his trial judge in The Hague called “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in human history”, and Former President of Chad, Hissène Habré, died of Covid -19 last month while serving a life sentence for human rights violations.
But, like Nuremberg, these are exceptions. Who has been tried, or will be tried, for the appalling abuses committed against the Uyghurs in China, the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iraq or the people of Tigray in Ethiopia? How many mass murderers are marching in freedom in Rwanda or Syria?
The anniversary of the Nuremberg verdicts provides an opportunity to revisit the debate on prosecution for war crimes, past and future. It also marks the release in October of a major new documentary film titled Getting away with murders which highlights some of the thousands of unpunished Nazi war criminals who escaped after 1945 and lived the rest of their lives undisturbed, some of them in Britain.
(Full disclosure: After the film’s director David Wilkinson read an article I wrote in the Observer three years ago, he invited me to appear in the film, visiting the site of my grandmother’s death.)
Seventy-five years after Nuremberg, at a time when war crimes are still committed with shameful eagerness, it is more important than ever to reaffirm the need to collect evidence when such crimes are committed, and to reaffirm the principle according to which they should never go unpunished.
History matters. We can learn from the mistakes of the past, which is why in Germany, under the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction”, a Syrian doctor is now on trial for crimes against humanity for torturing people in military hospitals. In the Netherlands, another Syrian was sentenced last July to 20 years in prison, accused of being a member of the Front al-Nosra, a subsidiary of Al-Qaida. In Sweden, a former deputy Iranian prosecutor is currently on trial for the mass execution and torture of prisoners in the 1980s.
It is sometimes argued that the need for justice must come after the need for peace and reconciliation. In South Africa and Northern Ireland countless crimes have gone unpunished in the name of peace. This is not always an unfounded argument.
But now, move quickly a few years. Imagine that another international war crimes tribunal is pending in The Hague. On the dock, accused of a long list of human rights abuses, are the leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Is it improbable? May be. But it is not impossible – if the evidence is gathered and the political will is exercised. In 1995, after the Srebrenica massacre, when Bosnian Serb forces massacred around 8,000 Muslim men and boys, who would have imagined that those responsible for the atrocity would one day be prosecuted and convicted for their actions? Yet today both Karadžić and Mladić are behind bars. (Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was also prosecuted in The Hague but died before his trial was completed.)
It can be done. There should be no excuse for allowing more war criminals to commit murder.
Getting Away with Murder (s) opens in select theaters on October 1